By Marion Miclet | @Marion_en_VO
All the Light We Cannot See filmed in Saint-Malo, Transatlantic in Marseille, The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon and, of course, Emily in Paris in the French capital… These are just a few of the many world-class productions that have elected France as their main filming location, hence revealing a wider image of the country. How did the French manage to overcome their reputation as a postcard nation?
Actress Clémence Poésy appears on screen. She enjoys one last puff of her cigarette before going down into the metro. This could be the opening scene of a French art-house film, except for the fact that something seriously wrong is happening underground: zombies have taken over! The unexpected alliance between the world of The Walking Dead and picturesque Paris (the French countryside will figure later) is how the Daryl Dixon spin-off starring Norman Reedus came (back) to life on AMC last September.
More subdued in their use of French landscapes and landmarks, the period dramas All the Light We Cannot See (Netflix) and Transatlantic (which closed the 2023 Séries Mania festival, also available on Netflix) are both set during World War II under the German Occupation. From the ramparts of Saint-Malo to the calanques of Marseille, they depict a realistic and captivating version of France. We are miles away from the usual clichés that shows such as Sex and the City, Gossip Girl and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel overused when briefly setting camp in Paris. Are we finally ready to say au revoir to the beret-baguette-accordion combo and the Banks of the Seine as a stand-in for Paris as a whole? Putting down roots makes all the difference. As reported by Rebecca Leffler in ScreenDaily: “In 2019, international productions based in France spent a total of €305 million, an amount which tripled in 2022 (€991 million).” What do these multilingual TV series made in France look like? And how do local infrastructures entice creators from abroad?
Themes and aesthetics
The precursors to this current French new wave are a handful of shows that have been successful way beyond their country of origin. Henceforth better known by their English titles, The Returned (Les Revenants), Spiral (Engrenages), The Bureau (Le Bureau des Légendes) and Call My Agent (Dix pour cent) are all global hits, in no small part thanks to the rise of the streaming platforms that acquired the rights to distribute them. Proof, however, that their Frenchness lies at the core of their popularity, the remakes they inspired didn’t make quite as big of a splash. What these TV series have in common is their seductive quality–the inescapable allure of France. But, more fundamentally, it’s their ability to amaze–via powerful stories and unique characters–that transcends borders. The foreign producers who select France as their main shooting location intend to do exactly the same.
A surefire way to surprise audiences is to challenge their expectations by delivering a modern and sexy watch
A surefire way to surprise audiences is to challenge their expectations. By delivering, not another period piece with skyscraper wigs, but a modern and sexy watch (think Marie-Antoinette, created by feminist auteur Deborah Davis). That’s how the cosmopolitan thriller Riviera, the bold historical drama Versailles and the lavish rom-com Emily in Paris–whose inaugural season managed to poke fun at the fact that it verges on caricature–rise above the competition. They audaciously defy the conventions of their respective genres. The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is already hailed by TV critics as one of the best installments of the franchise. But don’t expect the traditional bloodbath, even though zombies have infected France, from Paris to Marseille and Saint-Malo to Lyon. The biggest “jump scare” comes from the luscious, atmospheric aesthetics influenced by the masters of European cinema. British director Daniel Percival, who supervised the look and feel of the show for four episodes, in collaboration with director of photography Tommaso Fiorilli, mentions David Lean, Claude Berri and Wim Wenders as his stylistic inspirations.
The more foreign showrunners envision France as a character in its own right, and make use of its stunning scenery and charismatic actors, the more their creation will ring true. The production teams behind The Eddy, starring household names Leïla Bekhti and Tahar Rahim, and Monsieur Spade (2024), whose cast is a who’s who of emerging French talent, are not afraid of using accents. The same goes for subtitles, as they have ceased to be an obstacle for sales abroad. Being authentic also means recreating the past as accurately as possible. Part of the sixth season of The Crown was filmed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, where the tragic accident that took Diana’s life occurred. For The Serpent Queen, based on the autobiography of Catherine de Medici, cameras were set in several of the most beautiful French heritage castles. The French-Italian production Germinal was shot in the Nord département, where the original story by Émile Zola takes place. As for the Chinese TV series Flowers in Fog, it took over the Breton seaside!
Did these Asian producers come all the way to the Morbihan to simply enjoy the vista and eat a slice of the local delicacy known as kouign-amann? We hope they did, but that’s not probably the main reason for the venue. In the television business, similarly to cinema, art and money come hand in hand. What really makes the trip worth it is… the TRIP, an à propos acronym that stands for Tax Rebate for International Productions. This groundbreaking incentive has been selectively granted by the CNC (National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image) since 2009. The conditions are as follows: “The approved works must include elements related to French culture, heritage, and territory […] The rebate amounts up to 30% (or 40%, if the French VFX expenses are more than €2M) and can total a maximum of €30 million per project.” One can see why The Serpent Queen producer John Bernard is a fan of TRIP: “The 40% changes everything. […] France is becoming the hottest place to go to shoot. You’d be mad not to bring a whole show to France.”
France is becoming the hottest place to go to shoot.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to a report commissioned by the CNC, there were 101 international productions taking advantage of TRIP in 2023, as opposed to 24 in 2016. Alongside those effective financial incentives, as part of the France 2030 project, a new initiative called The Great Image Factory aims to make France the European leader in filming (on location and on studio sets) and in digital production. Moreover, one cannot underestimate the impact of streaming platforms pivoting towards the production of domestic content to diversify their catalogs. The popularity of shows such as Marseille and Lupin worldwide is additional proof that subscribers are keen to discover quality French TV, especially if it’s instantly available on a global scale. Finally, the significance of the “French touch” is a national commitment to environmental policies, in particular when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions.
And what about people skills? According to the CNC’s Vincent Florant: “The sweet spot is our current cross between great incentives and great infrastructure and savoir-faire.” On the set of All the Light We Cannot See, French expertise can be found in front of the camera, as well as behind the scenes: from technicians to bakers, and locals turned extras for a day, it’s the entire village of Villefranche-de-Rouergue in the south of France that was used to recreate the historic city center of Saint-Malo, where the action actually takes place. A boon for the local economy, and let’s not forget the future dividends from tourism that the show will certainly generate. Apple TV+ has recently announced that several episodes from the highly anticipated series The New Look on the life of Christian Dior were directed by Julia Ducournau, the first French woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Knowing her taste for gory stories and visuals, now all we have to do is wait and see if she’ll bring back more zombies to Paris…
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